Plight to delight
Nuns’ besieged soup kitchen gets OK for move to Mission
The day of judgment they’d waited on for nearly a year came Thursday, and the soup kitchen nuns of San Francisco saw their prayers answered.
The San Francisco Planning Commission voted 6-0 to allow a pair of French nuns to move their soup kitchen from the Tenderloin to the Mission District. The commissioners made the point so enthusiastically that the acting chair of the panel even promised to come eat their food.
The commission had convened to consider some Mission District residents’ objections to the nuns’ plans to relocate to a space near the 16th Street BART Station. Business advisory media star Tony Robbins purchased the space for the nuns last year after their landlord moved to evict them from their current Tenderloin location. In the end, it was no contest. “Amazing work you do,” commission Vice President Dennis Richards told the nuns just before the vote. A City Hall hearing room crammed to the walls with nearly 100 people — business owners, clergy members, nonprofit leaders and Mission District residents — burst into applause
as his gavel fell on the tally.
“I am very, very happy,” said Sister Mary of the Angels as a crowd formed around her and her soup kitchen partner, Sister Mary Benedicte, and Sister Mary Valerie — who flew in from their order’s main office in Chicago to help.
“When you give your heart to the homeless, you give your heart to God, and I thank this board for everything,” Mary of the Angels said.
The few opponents who spoke at the meeting said they thought the kitchen should not be located in their neighborhood, but nonetheless professed admiration for the nuns’ feeding operation.
“They have a good cause and a good heart,” said Gerry Ramsey, who lives in the building at 1930 Mission St. where the new kitchen will be housed and was one of those urging a “no” vote. “This will feed the homeless, but will it solve the overall problem of homelessness in our neighborhood or in our city? I’m afraid not.”
The vote was the culmination of a 10-month legal journey that began when the landlord of the Fraternite Notre Dame Mary of Nazareth House soup kitchen at 54 Turk St. moved to raise the nuns’ rent by more than 50 percent and then evict them.
Robbins and other powerful friends had assembled over the past year in a huge effort to rescue the sisters — and before the Planning Commission meeting Thursday, Robbins was joined at the Turk Street operation by Salesforce founder Marc Benioff, Roman Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, Mission District-area Supervisor Hillary Ronen and dozens of business owners and other supporters.
“Oh my. Oh my. Oh my,” Mary Benedicte, one of the two nuns who started the soup kitchen in 2008, said in a heavy French accent. “This is so nice to see.”
“We are praying for you, sisters,” Robbins said as he hugged the nuns.
“We are so happy that Mr. Tony came in to help, and we are praying that everyone can work things out so we can continue to help the poor people who need us,” Mary Benedicte said. “We don’t just feed homeless people — we feed anyone who has a need for food so they can afford to pay rent at the end of the month, too.
“Some people have told us they like the idea of our new soup kitchen, and that we should all do more for poor people. But some people don’t feel like that. We pray for them all.”
Ronen, elected in November, said, “I can’t imagine a more compassionate, appropriate service to come to the Mission.” She later led off the line of speakers who came before the commission to support the nuns.
Benioff called the nuns’ enterprise “an example for the city. ... This is the kind of thing we need to do in our city of love.”
Robbins, a lifelong advocate for feeding the poor, got involved in the nuns’ plight in February after being moved by a story in The Chronicle about their landlord’s plans. He negotiated a yearlong reprieve on the rent hike and eviction, bought them the new kitchen, and then with Benioff ’s help bought them a separate place in which to live.
Since then, the nuns have talked to hundreds of residents in the Mission District, walking door-to-door and attending neighborhood meetings, and Robbins and others drew together a volunteer team of lawyers and supporters to advocate for the soup kitchen. A change.org online petition in the nuns’ support had 19,351 signatures as of Thursday morning.
The neighborhood around the soup kitchen’s new site has been a nexus for rough street life for decades, and tent camps and poverty-level residential hotels dot the area. The city’s first Navigation Center, an intensive aid and shelter center for the homeless, is next to the building that will house the soup kitchen.
The kitchen space has been empty for years, and the rest of the building is home to a medical marijuana office and 17 condominiums.
Some residents say they are afraid food lines will draw more homeless people and reduce their property values. An appeal for a public hearing from the homeowners association for 1930 Mission St.’s residents was the reason the Planning Commission heard the matter Thursday.
Others say the nuns’ operation will instill a measure of calm to the area around 16th and Mission, noting that’s the effect they have at their current spot. Among those is Archbishop Cordileone, who said the nuns bring “a motherly love to what they do.”
The Planning Commission’s staff recommended approval of the Mission Street soup kitchen, pointing out that the city’s Food Security Task Force has determined that 31 percent of the people living in the neighborhood “are at risk for food insecurity,” and that city policy encourages support for human service providers in the area.
Sister Mary Benedicte greets Catalina Dean at the current Fraternite Notre Dame Mary of Nazareth House soup kitchen in the Tenderloin, where the operation had faced a 50 percent rent increase and eviction.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff bear-hugs Tony Robbins, who stepped in on the nuns’ behalf, negotiating a reprieve on the rent raise, then buying them a new spot at 16th and Mission streets.
Tony Robbins, the soup kitchen nuns’ angel, enjoys the moment with Sisters Mary Benedicte (left), Mary of the Angels and Mary Valerie at their current soup kitchen in the Tenderloin.